There are several aspects of Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion that make it an unusual Hollywood disaster movie. One is that the big stars rarely, if ever, get bumped off (Gwyneth Paltrow is dead less than 10 minutes in), another is that it lacks that pumped-up ambience of American militaristic machismo that infects so many of these movies. But most of all, it’s the central role of women – tough, intelligent, decisive women – that makes Contagion stand out from the crowd.
Tellingly, the first sound you hear, even before the visuals, is a cough. Already, an on-screen caption informs, it’s Day 2 of the pandemic. The ill-fated Gwyneth Paltrow is on her way back from a business trip to Hong Kong, carrying a lethal virus that she picked up in circumstances that are revealed only at the end of the film. On the way home she drops in on an old lover in Chicago, spreading the infection to that city, before heading home to carry the deadly virus into her own family. In cool, measured documentary-like sequences, Soderbergh show how the pandemic spreads rapidly around the world – and how scientists and medical investigators battle to identify and outflank the virus.
It’s here that we notice the distinct lack of powerful men barking orders, military-fashion, at minions. The director of the Centre for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) is calm and soft-spoken and despatches Kate Winslet as a scientific investigator to track victims and galvanise regional authorities into organising to deal with the disaster. Winslet perishes, too. Among others depicted as bravely fighting to stem the epidemic are Elliott Gould, now in his 70s, who plays a medical researcher who defies orders and manages to grow the virus in the lab as the first step towards developing a vaccine, a World Health Organization investigative scientist (Marion Cotillard) who risks her life as she tries to trace the virus’ origin in China, and a female research doctor (Jennifer Ehle) who also takes a decisive step, at great personal risk, to hasten the process of identifying and manufacturing a vaccine.
Contagion is a pretty exciting way to pass ninety minutes in the cinema, but I did feel that after an gripping first 30 minutes or so, the film steadily deflated. Ironically, this could be due to the rapid success of the aforementioned medics – there’s nothing particularly adrenaline-inducing about the sight of people queuing to be vaccinated. But it’s also due to several sub-plots either not sparking or just fading out. As an example of the former, the ‘prom night’ scene involving the Gwyneth Paltrow character’s daughter fails to move, while the sub-plot involving the kidnapping the WHO scientist just seems to trickle away.
To its credit, more than most Hollywood studio films, Contagion does give a realistic portrayal of the social dimension to the disaster: violent clashes at food distribution sites and chemists, the unpreparedness of government agencies turning away those in need because they have run out of supplies, and makeshift hospitals set up in sports arenas. Mind you, after Hurricane Katrina, Hollywood has a bit of catching up to do.
There’s also a mad blogger into conspiracy theory who urges his readers not to take the vaccine which is just a way for the pharmaceutical companies to maximise their profits. Instead, he claims that he made a successful recovery from the infection using a homeopathic cure based on forsythia. The irony here is that he creates a windfall for drug companies that manufacture it. Here Soderbergh brings into the frame the phenomenon of vaccine denialism – seen here in the MMR vaccine controversy and in a more general rejection of vaccines in the United States. This strand gives rise to one of the best lines of the film: ‘Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation’.
The film concludes by reverting to Day 1 and showing how the virus originated. Beth Emhoff , the Gwyneth Paltrow character, worked for an American mining corporation, and we see one of their bulldozers clearing jungle, and tearing down a tree in which bats were nesting. The bats fly out, and one bat, the vector, flies to a nearby pig farm, where it excretes into a stall. The pig eats the excrement, is sold and slaughtered before being prepared by a chef in the casino where Beth Emhoff is being entertained. The chef, called out to meet her, smears the pig’s blood on his apron but does not wash his hands before shaking Beth’s hand, and so infects her with the disease. So Soderbergh, too, manages to inject his own bit of anti-corporatism into the narrative.
Steven Soderbergh has been making films of varying character and quality for a long time. The first one of his I recall seeing, in the late 1980s, was Sex, Lies and Videotape, which I now can’t remember at all. Some ten years ago Erin Brockovich was a fine film, based on a true story, of an unemployed single mother who became a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brought down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply. More recently, I watched the worthy but dull Che part one, but couldn’t summon up sufficient interest to see part two.